The discoveries in Mkhambathi Nature Reserve on South Africa's Wild Coast were made by scientists and volunteers from Earthwatch during an eight-day period in 2008. The scientists were working in partnership with Eastern Cape Parks, the government organisation that manages the protected areas in the Eastern Cape Province.
Earthwatch scientist Dr. Michelle Hamer of the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the University of KwaZulu-Natal explains the significance of the findings: "These discoveries are important because they highlight just how little we know about our biodiversity, even in a relatively well studied country like South Africa. This particular area is also threatened by the construction of a major motorway nearby and by mining of the dunes in the adjacent area. There is also a lot of pressure to develop tourism infrastructure inside the reserve. This means that many of these species could have disappeared before they were even discovered by scientists."
Dr. Hamer says: "At least if we understand the importance of the area in terms of its invertebrate fauna, then we can try to protect it. Will it make a difference to anyone if these new species go extinct? We don't know for sure, but we do know that every species that is removed from an ecosystem results in some weakening of the ecosystem. This could have an effect on the cleanliness of the water or on soil fertility, for example."
Executive Vice President of Earthwatch, Nigel Winser, says: "These new discoveries by Michelle Hamer and her field assistants confirm the rich biodiversity of this grassland ecosystem. Systematic surveys of flora and fauna such as these, underpin long term management strategies for habitats under threat and Earthwatch is proud to be supporting this invertebrate research over many years. Such findings give a boost to conservation commitments in South Africa."
The scientists confirmed 18 new species of invertebrates, but suspect that another 18 might also be newly discovered. A report, highlighting the important information about the invertebrates of Mkhambathi, was presented to Eastern Cape Parks scientists earlier this year for use in their conservation planning and management strategies. The new species are currently in the process of being named, described and illustrated by scientists at museums and other research institutes in South Africa.
Earthwatch has supported Dr. Hamer's research in South Africa for seven years. Dr. Hamer says: "We have also collected new species on other expeditions in South Africa, but the large number collected in such a short time at Mkhambathi is quite unusual. Many of the species we collected seem to be unique to a small area in or around Mkhambathi."
She adds, "Mkhambathi has enormous potential for ecotourism, providing economic benefits to South Africans through this. Conflicting pressures may, however, result in the destruction of key habitats and subsequently the biodiversity of the reserve. Collecting data is critical in any motivation for continued conservation."
Earthwatch scientists in South Africa have discovered 18 new species of invertebrate including spiders, snails, millipedes, earthworms, centipedes and true bugs.